Recently two books landed on my doorstep , I had purchased them however I have absolutely no idea why I did so….I’m thinking I read a review or possibly noticed their high rating on “The Complete Review” website and not having enough books on my shelf (can you ever have too many books?) I just went ahead and ordered them. Today I look at the first of those purchases, “Against Nature” by Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal.
As visitors here, or even general readers of translated fiction, would know, Norway is home to Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the six part “My Struggle” a highly successful, frequently debated collection of works, where the lines between fiction and reality are blurred, where our writer reveals in painstaking detail his day to day existence, his struggle with love, fatherhood, writing, relationships and more. The work extending to many many thousands of pages.
Rest assured Tomas Espendal’s “Against Nature” whilst covering the same themes as Knausgaard does so in a different bare, raw style.
Coming from Norway “Against Nature” is possibly always going to be compared to “My Struggle” and when our book contains a protagonist and his lover reading Knausgaard, the inevitable comparison is something you can’t avoid. Here we have a pared-down version, something which goes straight to the heart of the subjects under discussion, a work where the periphery is not required, a novel which says a lot without saying much at all:
A LITTLE BOOK ABOUT HAPPINESS
For a long time I dreamt of writing a series of little books. A little book about love. A little book about friendship. A little book about writing. A little book for my daughter. A little book about happiness, et cetera.
The book about happiness could never be a long one, anyway.
Not a long book, nor yet a profound book, the language of happiness is straightforward and banal, there is no depth to happiness, or is there?
The book about happiness must be brief. Brief and fragmentary; it is impossible to create a continuous narrative about happiness. No chronology. No logic or sense, it’s impossible to write a novel about happiness.
“Against Nature” (apparently a companion piece to “Against Art”) opens with a young girl sitting on an older man’s lap at a New Year’s Eve party, they have removed themselves from the main party and have adjourned to the library:
He is forty-eight, he seems older, his hair is grey at the temples, a grey, close-cropped beard. A wide mouth, thick lips, there are cuts in the lips and scars around the mouth from fights or injuries, his face is coarse and lined. It’s the face that could have been ruined by loneliness or too many pleasures, it isn’t possible to way what there is in his face, but it’s the destruction that gives him his beauty; she thinks he has a ruined and beautiful face. When she looks at him, up-close, as she sits over him and leans forward to kiss him, all she feels is fear. And it must be fear she needs, because she presses her lips to his and pushes her tongue into the open mouth. What does she want? Perhaps simply that he should be her lover. Perhaps she wants to hurl herself into something dangerous, calamitous, that will alter her completely. He’s sitting in the chair at the desk wearing a black suit and white shirt, a black tie loosened at the collar; she’s sitting on his lap, as if they’re both familiar with the image that awaits them in the mirror – death and the young maiden.
Our opening shifts in time and space and style, the lovers become Abélard and Héloïse from 1132, the story shifts to the first person, they become poetry, they are Ovid. The opening section “The Library” introduces us to a forty-eight year old Espedal and his much younger lover, the night they met.
We then shift back in time to “Work, The Factory” where Espedal is a teenager, working in the factory oiling the looms and we hear of his first girlfriend, a younger girl, does this relationship set the scene for all his future life?
I realized very early on that I didn’t want to work. Aged sixteen, I got a job in a factory; it was cleaning and oiling the looms in the textile works where my father was a manager. At sixteen I was ready to follow my father, and his father before him, I wanted to be a good worker, a good husband, and later on a good father, like all the fathers in my family.
Just a few months on, and all this lay in ruins – I didn’t want to work, and I wasn’t going to get married, ever, and I didn’t want children, at any price, I wanted to be free.
Repetition comes to the fore here, highlighting the monotony of working and of existence, a simple point can be reiterated three or four times, from a different angle. We then follow our writer to his marriage to Agnete and the birth of his daughter Amalie and the constant struggle to write, whilst being dragged around the world by his actress wife.
One evening when I was sitting in this bar, it was crowded with customers, they’d filled the seats around the tables and the space all along the counter, a man entered wearing a hat and poncho, he positioned himself in the middle of the room and began singing at the top of his voice, a tearful, agonized song, he sobbed, he wept, he sang out his suffering with all his strength. Then he produced a trumpet and blew the dregs of the pain and weeping out of his body. I just sat there as if paralysed, how dared he, how could he, just come into the bar and stand in the middle of the room, giving vent to his emotions in that way, right in front of every stranger in the place. He blew his trumpet, and I recognized the lie I was living, with all its weakness and cowardice, its silence and caution; I wanted to be like this man with the hat and poncho, I wanted to be a candid and uncompromising person, I wanted to write the way he sang, I wanted to be an honest and difficult man.
The story then turns the full circle and in “Workrooms, Laboratories” we return to the girl our protagonist met at the New Year’s Eve party, a time of happiness, bliss, a time of reading Knausgaard and listening to Nick Cave, a time where our writer finally appears free.
Our work then moves to “The Notebooks” where we have daily snippets of our writer’s work after a major event (no spoilers here, you’ll have to read this yourself to get the full context).
This is a wonderfully brief insight into the mid of Espendal, the art of writing and the pursuit of happiness, the self reflection, a life raw on the page in front of us, a book where the dream of human freedom is explored via many angles. I may not have known why I bought this book, but I can clearly state that I am happy I did, in my mind a contender for the new Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and the Best Translated Book Award, a sparse look at the mind of an ageing Norwegian writer – yes I said “sparse”. I’ll certainly be hunting down the companion piece “Against Art”.